Mark 1:4 and the NLTse —really?

The New Living Translation (second edition, abbreviated NLTse) at times is a good translation. It provides an accurate reflection of the underlying original language text and does so in understandable English. But then… there are times when I shake my head and want to throw it all out.

Take Mark 1:1-8, the Gospel lectionary for yesterday, the 2nd Sunday in Advent. After doing my own translating of the Greek, I began comparing translations, specifically on 1:4. I looked through a few translations of differing methods. First, three from formal equivalence method (sometimes called word-for-word):

New American Standard (NAS95) John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins

New King James (NKJV) John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

Then four from functional (dynamic) equivalence method (sometimes called phrase-for-phrase):

New Internal Version (NIV 1984, so also NIV 2011)  John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

God’s Word (GW) John the Baptizer was in the desert telling people about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

New Century Version (NCV): John was baptizing people in the desert and preaching a baptism of changed hearts and lives for the forgiveness of sins.

New Living Translation (NLTse) This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.

Notice that six of the translations (as well as many other translations) follow the same basic rendering of the Greek. NLTse, however, changes the entire sense of the verse by its rendering in two ways: 1) Baptism is no longer left to its own force, not even connected to forgiveness of sins and 2) there is nothing to baptism except that it is a sign of something the people have done, namely repent of their sins. But is that what Greek text states? Not at all. Even a literalistic translation of βαπτιζω as “baptism“ is better than importing a different theological concept.

Just to note: Common English Bible—CEB and Everyday Reading Version—ERV follow the same direction as NLTse.

This is not a case of the translation trying to make the underlying Greek easier to understand, but rather of changing what the Greek text does say. This translation imports a specific theology contrary to what the text is saying (in Greek, as well as in most English translations). On this specific text, the NLTse/CEB/ERV would receive a grade of F for accuracy and reliability. And here is a case where NLTse’s normal “understandability” is not helpful, because it presents an understanding different than the original text.

Author: exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian

10 thoughts on “Mark 1:4 and the NLTse —really?”

  1. There is no good translation – not one. See the ESV (extra syllable version) the NIV (non inspired version) etc on the epistle and ot yesterday….you would think they were written by mormons… wait – the LDS did start in St Louis.. hmmmmm

    Let’s teach them all Latin.


  2. @Dustin, ah, yeah, St. Louis is also the home for some good beer and baseball. Actually the NIV is our pew Bible, so I use it as the base from which to preach. Sometimes I have to “clarify” a little. I’m thinking we should teach them Greek first, then Latin.

    @Emily, indeed that is a significant change. For another, take a look at Romans 3:22 in NLTse.


  3. I actually DID stop using the NLTse when I discovered many instances of this type of thing. As you said, sometimes it brings out the meaning very well, for example Isaiah 53. But all too often we see the translators injecting their own theological interpretation into the text. I would far rather have the words themselves than have the translators try and tell me what the Bible is saying.


  4. Functional-equivalence translations have value, but the great weakness of functional-equivalence translations is that they can clearly state a complete misunderstanding of the text. With a formal equivalence translation, the translator’s theological biases (and we all have them) are much more muted. With a formal-equivalence translation, there’s a greater risk of the reader not understanding at all, but there’s also a greater possibility of the reader understanding the text better than the translator did.


  5. Welcome to the paraphrase/translation conflict. As I understand it a translation involves a group of people who translate the verse and choose the best English words to match the meaning of the original language. There are a range of translations from word for word translations to concept for concept translations. An example would be the word sheep. That word for word translation might be a problem for Inuit who had never seen a sheep. It is currently somewhat of a problem for city dwellers who don’t know how smelly and outstandingly stupid and stubborn sheep really are, at least according to my friend who raises sheep on a farm. On the other hand, a concept for concept translator might substitute Sheltie Collie if he were convinced the Inuit knew how stupid Shelty Collies were. (Best I could do on short notice – I once knew a Sheltie that walked into glass doors repeatedly without learning.)

    Paraphrases occur when an individual or group comes up with an English translation, then uses the English translation and tries to come up with the latest idioms of the day to explain what the English translation said (a translation of a translation). Things get lost and found in the translation of the translation, and they get old quickly. Pick up a Good News for Modern Man and you will see dated idioms attempting to explain things to people who don’t speak the idiom of the day the Good News paraphrase was translated. (The meaning of “wicked” has changed 180 degrees since then, for instance.)

    If you read the NLT preface, even to the second edition, the NLT is a paraphrase. According to its own preface, just like Jim Petersen (The Message, The Message Redux) translated the Bible, then turned it into a paraphrase, the translators came up with an English translation, then took the English translation and tried to put it into current idioms. In other words, the Message, the Good News and the NLTse are translations of translations and therefore paraphrases. They can call themselves translations, but they are really paraphrases.


    1. Howdy. Regarding your last statement: “In other words, the Message, the Good News and the NLTse are translations of translations.”

      The only one that is a “translation of a translation” was the original “Living Bible” by Kenneth Taylor in 1972. The three you mention did not evolve that way; however, ”The Message” is indeed a paraphrase, but not because of what you claim. The other two were translations from the original language texts.

      With regard to all translations, there is not a rigid division, but rather a continuum of translations, from the word-for-word correspondence to phrase-for-phrase correspondence to paraphrase: Young’s Literal to NAS to ESV to HCSB to NIV to CEB to GW to NLTse to CEV to The Message. And most of them offer a mix of the word-for-word (formal equivalence) and phrase-for-phrase (dynamic equivalence); thus, there is no absolute word-for-word translation, and even paraphrases get close to the meaning of the original language text.

      Ultimately we do not judge an English translation relative to another English translation (sadly a very common experience among English Bible users). Rather we check to see how each translation helps us understand better the original language text.

      For those who want to study in detail, I strongly recommend one of the formal equivalent translations and one of the dynamic equivalent translations. Thus, I think the best combination is NAS and GW.


  6. Not sure I understand the fine distinction that you seem to derive from this verse. The phrase translated “baptism of repentance,” if I understand the Greek correctly, is a phrase similar to “shout of joy” — an action that expresses an inward attitude. I shout as an expression of my joy. I get baptized as an expression of my repentance. As such the phrase is pretty much the same thing as “baptized to show that they had repented.”


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